It’s difficult to appreciate just how far away El Paso is from the rest of Texas until you make the drive. It’s 600 miles and one time zone away from Austin, roughly nine hours of 80-mph speed limits and not much in between, mostly barren desert landscape. On a TV at a restaurant outside El Paso, I saw an ad for a congressional race in New Mexico. That isolation has given El Paso a culture that’s thoroughly distinct from the Lone Star fervor in the rest of the state.
This is from whence Beto O’Rourke came. He launched his campaign with a small circle of advisers from El Paso — some had more experience in New Mexico politics than Texas politics — and he’s kept that circle close. He’s ignored the conventional party structure in Austin and stubbornly run a campaign that’s stuck to its founding premises: no polls, no consultants; basically, do whatever feels good. As he’s proven, it was a far better strategy than whatever Texas Democrats have been doing in the past.
El Paso, an hour behind the rest of the state, will be the last county to file its election returns tonight — and the campaign is hoping for O’Rourke’s hometown to show up in a big way. An aggressive field program, coupled with his hometown celebrity, has fueled huge early voting totals here, which nearly doubled the total turnout from 2014.
On the day before Election Day, I swung by a Beto pop-up office near downtown El Paso. Canvassers there have focused on door-knocking in the most heavily Latino neighborhoods that are nestled along the U.S.-Mexico border.
As Sally Andrade, who coordinates the office, explains, O’Rourke is a well-known figure in the city. “People are like ‘I cut his hair,’ ‘I helped raise him,’ ‘I taught him.’” She insists that past controversies like his support for a redevelopment plan pushed by his father-in-law in the Segundo Barrio as a El Paso city council member isn’t much of a factor. People remember that “he stood in my yard and asked for my vote” or that he fixed the streetlight in their neighborhood, she said.
She says that the campaign’s emphasis on face–to–face GOTV has made a big difference here. “People forget that the older generation has not had an easy time of it,” Andrade said about why it’s so hard to get people to vote. “Having a mix of young and old people come and ask them for their vote, that is different.”
I tagged along on a block walk in the Chamizal neighborhood with Sanjay Mathur, a longtime El Paso resident from the West Side, Vicky Goytia, a retired nurse who grew up in the Segundo Barrio and Ana Saenz, an 18-year-old University of Texas at El Paso student who was volunteering for the first time. Over the course of a couple hours, they knocked on dozens of doors — mostly small apartments in close proximity. Many people still hadn’t voted and didn’t know where they were supposed to go; several others couldn’t vote because they were U.S. residents but not citizens.
Jesus Hernandez said he hadn’t voted since 2012, and while he knows a lot of Latinos in El Paso who like Trump because of how he talks about the wall and immigration, he’s firmly against the president’s policies. An elderly woman was walking to the polling place when the volunteers approached her. They told her Election Day was the next day, but she said she was busy then. “What difference does it make anyway?” she asked in Spanish. “En este año, las elecciones son diferentes. Beto es diferente. Puedes hacer la diferencia,” Mathur insisted.
The block walk was highly productive — they got dozens of voters to confirm their plans to vote on Tuesday, many of whom probably wouldn’t have voted otherwise. Mathur is excited — these are the people that need to vote if Beto is to stand a chance. But, he admitted, “It feels like we should have been out here earlier.”
It makes you wonder how many similar, potential voters there are in El Paso and around the state.
Optimism is high in Beto’s hometown, but people are nervous. “A lot of us who have been in campaigns generally get a sense for where things are going, but I definitely don’t feel that for this race,” Veronica Escobar, who’s expected to win her election to replace Beto O’Rourke’s congressional seat, told me last week. “There’s apprehension after 2016 — I think people are afraid to get their hopes up. There was the terrible experience that sometimes the good guys don’t win.”
But she offered up a prediction: “He’s gonna win. I think it’s gonna be very close. It’s going to be so close that my prediction is that Ted Cruz will sue [for a recount].”